Andrei Strizek

Music | Musings

My Strange Love With Gershwin*: Introduction

I have a dirty secret to share: I like the music of George Gershwin. In fact, I greatly enjoy and admire his music. This is something it's taken a while for me to admit, largely helped in the past month or so by taking a course on him and his music.

Gershwin was one of the first "classical" composers I actively listened to, enjoyed and, basically, devoured. Some time in middle school I got an RCA Victor collection of his music.  His main classical works, save from Porgy & Bess, were in heavy rotation on my playlist: Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F, An American in Paris, and Cuban Overture. At the time I didn't know much about Gershwin other than that he wrote jazz music for the concert stage, and that something about his music was exciting.

As my tastes changed in high school, I stopped listening to him, aside from a brief period when I learned his Second Prelude for Piano. I played and listened to some of his tunes that became jazz standards, and liked the Miles Davis/Gil Evans recording of Porgy and Bess (but truth be told, I liked Sketches of Spain more).

As I developed as a musician I became more elitist, though, and slowly frowned upon Gershwin and his music. I would attend an orchestra concert with An American in Paris on the program and get upset that they were wasting time on that piece - it wasn't even a pops concert! Why bother playing Gershwin?

Carl Wilson, summing up a mammoth research study by Pierre Bourdieu in Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, writes:

As with money, cultural and social capital's value depends on scarcity, on knowing what others don't.

It's a reaction typically seen as coming from the indie-rock scene but common to nearly all of us at some point. Everyone knew Gershwin, and I was above that: I was a maturing musician who appreciated the finer points of Ellington and Evans (Gil and Bill) among others.

So I stayed away from the vast majority of his music for at least five years - but probably more like nine or ten. I'm only now starting to re-appreciate what the "naive" Andrei felt years ago.

Who was Gershwin? If nothing else, he was an enigma. Was he a jazzer? A man of the musical theatre? A Tin Pan Alley composer and song-plugger? A modern, cutting-edge classical composer, or one who's music was entrenched in late-Romantic schlock?

Gershwin was popular, that's for sure, which is partly why he was disdained in the 1920s and 30s. Contemporary composers such as Virgil Thomson & Aaron Copland, at least initially, were some of the harshest critics of Gershwin (though truth be told this could have been partly out of jealousy and trying to minimize Gershwin's stature, and they both later reconsidered their notions of Gershwin's music):

The real drama of the piece is the spectacle of Gershwin wrestling with his medium, and the exciting thing is that after all those years the writing of music is still not a routine thing to him ... With a libretto that should never have been accepted on a subject that should never have been chosen, a man who should never have attempted it has written a work that is of some power and importance. - Virgil Thomson about "Porgy and Bess"

Gershwin was indeed a man of the theatre, perhaps more than his other compositional and musical interests. Yet a lot of his music was considered jazz in the 1920s, he wrote "classical" works, and wrote what is nowadays considered one of the finest American operas. His music wasn't boundary-less, but it did meld several elements that were common in his time, ranging from Ragtime to Debussy.

Gershwin wasn't as well-trained in composition as other contemporaries were (but more than peers like Irving Berlin). He never studied with Boulanger in Paris, like Copland did, and this led some to believe that he was a natural talent, but couldn't accomplish much since he didn't have proper training.

Gershwin was a force in American music, and still is. As a way to process my thoughts on Gershwin, a way to hep me practice my writing and expand on things talked about in class and through my readings and research, I'm going to be writing a series of posts about Gershwin and his music. I don't have a set schedule for them, or a set list of topics, but I hope to touch on several different aspects of his career, from the theatre to the concert hall.

I don't want to leave this post without any examples of Gershwin's music - more will be forthcoming, but at this point I want to leave you with a recording of Gershwin playing one of his most popular songs, Someone to Watch Over Me. This was recorded in 1926, the year it premiered in the show Oh, Kay!

 Did I mention that Gershwin was a fine pianist?


(*Bonus points if you can figure out where I pulled the title of these posts from.)

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